Football games, we’re often told, aren’t won on paper. And this is even true in the era of the A3 jumbo pad, available from all good stationers and popular in the dugout among the modern managers, who, hopefully, got a good deal on those chunky propelling pens with the multi-colour options.
Equally, games are not won by 27 men posing for the cameras in smart suits, even if a tournament-best number of them were smiling winningly, almost all apart from Kyle Walker who looked like he was due in court, possibly on a charge of impersonating a centre-back. Even if it was nice of them to wear Marks & Sparks and support an ailing brand. They’re not won by the boss and the players talking openly, honestly, modestly, pleasantly, humbly, cheerily and self-effacingly, all of this before a ball is kicked. What matters is what happens when Harry Kane knocks it back to Jordan Henderson in Volgograd tomorrow night to get the ailing brand of Ingurland up and running in this World Cup. Hang on, that’s assuming Gareth Southgate’s men kick off their first game against Tunisia. England are not assuming or presuming or predicting anything about this tournament and you have to say this makes a pleasant change.
There’s been no boasting about how England are going to win the World Cup. How football’s coming home. How so many years of hurt and missed penalties and stout yeoman legs being left for dead by quicksilver German ones and the ball being booted straight out of play under absolutely no pressure whatsoever are coming to an end. None of that this time. There have been no soap operas over the star man’s injured metatarsal or latest haircut requiring hour-by-hour updates because in this team there is no star man. Kane, pictured, is the captain and the one with the highest profile but he seems like a decent guy, far removed from the egomaniacs and blowhards and perishers of previous campaigns. It was a surprise indeed when towards the end of the domestic season he claimed a goal for his club Spurs which patently wasn’t his, in an attempt to keep pace with Mo Salah at the top of the scoring charts. The shock wouldn’t have been any greater if he’d admitted that at his best friend’s seventh birthday party he’d cheated at pin the tail on the donkey.
England are fed up being World Cup donkeys so in this new approach there have been no Wags shopathons to rival the shoe and handbag and peach bellini and spa treatment excesses of Baden-Baden at the 2006 World Cup – Germany’s second economic miracle, these were dubbed – because there are no Wags. Sure, the players have wives and girlfriends but there don’t seem to be any gold-diggers and fame-seekers among them. Most would appear to be childhood sweethearts, with one or two possibly having started holding hands with these future England heroes when they were Boy Scouts under the benign tutelage of Lord Baden-Baden Powell.
What else? The team’s cheerleaders in the press have kept a lid on it. Specifically, the lid on their newspaper’s biscuit barrel containing the “WAR OVER–dimension headlines, the peacetime use of which has all been about how the nation expects to win the World Cup. (I know, headlines don’t come in solid form anymore, but hopefully you get my drift). With the papers refraining from the usual jingoistic hysteria, Essex Man, White Van Man, Andy Capp, Samantha Fox, Bulldog Drummond, the ghost of that old top-hatted geezer festooned with badges always down the front of the old Wembley, the ghost of Pickles the Dog, Uncle Tom Cobley and all have not been moved to put out flags. Suburban lawns are staying green and not being sprayed with the Cross of St George. New babies are not being named after central midfielders who may be great individually but cannot play together. And come to think of it, the team no longer features Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard dovetailing dimwittedly.
The last-named radical move is down to the manager, Gareth Southgate, as are much of the rest, via his calm, thoughtful, unshowy stewardship. The penalty-flunking, pizza-flogging Euro 96 fall-guy has played a blinder thus far. If there was a World Cup for understatement England would have won it already and we could all get back to watching Love Island. Can he take his team further? Can he help shift more of those dinky rear-view mirror mascots? They aren’t selling right now. Tournament merchandise is staying on the shelves. Doesn’t the man know World Cup madness is worth £1.3 billion to the economy? Southgate could, if he wanted, point to tonight’s BBC2 documentary, Managing England: an Impossible Job, as further evidence of why a different tack has been required. Specifically, he could freeze-frame it at the moment when a haunted Bobby Robson, his eyes shot with exasperation, says: “I want to ask the people of this country: do you want a successful England team or not? If they don’t I’ll pack it in right now.” Who was poor Bobby talking about? Hard to believe it was the ordinary fan. Suspicion quickly rounded on the press, not the main football correspondents, but the journos specially assigned to “do a number” on the manager if required, those for whom “England cock-up” was a better story.
Who would want the job? Plenty of guys, and all the ones who’ve gone before believed they’d learn from their predecessors’ mistakes. Sven-Goran Eriksson wished he’d recruited a psychologist and unrecruited Ulrika-ka-ka Jonsson: “Off the pitch I could have lived another life, more quiet.” Glenn Hoddle if he had his time again would probably have unrecruited the faith-healer, although he couldn’t be blamed for some England players being jealous of him, as the boss, still possessing more skill than them. Juvenile attitudes like that don’t deserve to win World Cups, and they palpably haven’t. Ego, arrogance, entitlement – the old attitudes have withered as England, the country, has drifted ever further from days of war, colonialism and 1966.
Maybe it’s a good time, then, to be in charge of England, the team, when expectations are so low. Good luck to Southgate, though, he’ll still need it.